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December 19, 2014

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Happier days for Democrats

As state convention delegates gather in Reno, their party is stronger than it’s been in years

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Steve Marcus

Yvette Williams shows her enthusiasm before hosting a party for Barack Obama in July at her home. The Democrats have signed up thousands of volunteers and registered tens of thousands of new voters.

Nevada Democrats stared oblivion in the face two years ago. They’d failed to deliver Nevada for the Democratic presidential candidate in two consecutive elections. They held no constitutional offices and were running two neophytes for Congress against otherwise beatable Republicans. Two of the party’s finest, former Clark County Commissioners Dario Herrera and Erin Kenny, were on their way to prison for corruption.

As Democrats gather in Reno today for their state convention, they can take heart. With the help of Sen. Harry Reid’s power play — making Nevada an early presidential voting state — as well as Republican drift, state Democrats have made significant gains. They’ve developed a solid bench of elected officials and candidates, recruited thousands of newly trained volunteers and registered tens of thousands of new voters, going from even with Republicans to a 50,000-voter registration advantage in a little more than a year.

Still, these being Democrats, there’s a twinge of anxiety, that inescapable feeling — which once plagued fans of the Boston Red Sox — that cruel fate will befall them.

The anxiety isn’t irrational. Nevada voters, who have a long history of libertarianism, bucked national anti-Republican trends in 2006, electing Republicans Gov. Jim Gibbons and Rep. Dean Heller and reelecting Rep. Jon Porter and Sen. John Ensign.

Democrats also face division within their coalition following a long and difficult presidential race, which in many ways first became nasty and competitive in Nevada. Divisions in organized labor, laid bare by the caucus fight, must be healed. Meanwhile, inexperienced candidates in state Senate and Assembly races must learn how to articulate the issues.

Make no mistake, though, Democrats are ecstatic about where they are right now, especially heartened that the presidential race appears to be winding down as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama consolidates control over the race and the party.

“We’re stronger than we’ve been in at least 15 years, if not longer,” party spokeswoman Kirsten Searer said.

The reasons are twofold: The party not only enjoys a registration advantage but, as Democratic political operative Jim Ferrence points out, the caucus delivered a small army of new activists who can be marshaled for the fall:

“The one obvious change is the huge shift in the registration numbers, and a three- or four-point shift can make the difference. The not-so-obvious thing is the level of organization never before seen here. The notion that every precinct has a precinct captain and an assistant precinct captain, the thousands of Democrats who’ve made themselves available to help out, we’ve just never seen it.”

One of these out-of-the-woodwork Democrats is Yvette Williams, who had donated money to Democratic candidates, but never time. Now she’s monkish in her commitment. She estimated she’s worked 2,000 hours for Obama since she began volunteering 16 months ago. She’s running to be a delegate to the national convention in Denver — an astounding 2,000 other Nevada Obama supporters are also seeking one of 13 Obama spots — and is seeking a seat on the party’s executive board. She’s also an Assembly captain, meaning she’s the state party’s lead volunteer organizer for an entire Assembly district.

“He’s taught us we have got to get involved and be a part of the system,” she said of Obama. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has had a similar effect.

Republicans view these new minions with some nervousness. “Going into the convention, Democrats should be happy with the registration gains they’ve made with the caucus, but the key is, there’s no sign they’ve let up. They’ve kept the charge going,” said Robert Uithoven, a Republican operative.

Still, Uithoven said, Republicans believe they can hold their own, despite the stiff headwind. He said the party is confident it can help Arizona Sen. John McCain carry the state in the presidential contest, as well as retain its one-seat majority in the state Senate and pick up a couple in the Assembly, while helping Heller and Porter win reelection.

And there’s the Democratic anxiety, the fear among some that the party will miss another opportunity.

The Democratic coalition was frayed some by the hard-fought caucus, with labor unions jousting over competing candidates. The teachers union unsuccessfully sued the state party to shut down special Strip caucus sites in a move seen as a direct attack on the Culinary Union, whose workers were most likely to caucus at the sites.

Then there’s candidate recruitment. Porter’s original opponent, Robert Daskas, recently dropped out of the race, leaving Democrats scrambling. By most accounts, though, his replacement, state Sen. Dina Titus, is as good a candidate or even better than Daskas.

In the furious quest to pick up one state Senate seat and place the upper body in Democratic hands, the party must be judged the underdog. Allison Copening, a marketing executive with lots of volunteer work on her resume, will take on Sen. Bob Beers. Shirley Breeden, a retired Clark County School District administrator, will challenge Sen. Joe Heck, Democrats announced Friday.

As Uithoven noted, this is all for show. The truth will come in the fall: “Ultimately, we’re all judged on Nov. 4.”

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